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How the coronavirus is making us lose our minds

Fights among family members over canceled plans. Hands rubbed raw from so much washing. Even Bobby McFerrin wouldn’t sing, “Don’t Worry.”

Purell and other cleaning products were gone from the shelves inside the Target in North Attleborough on Monday.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

At this point in the coronavirus outbreak, we need two metrics: the risk of contracting the disease, which in Massachusetts is currently “low,” per state officials; and the risk of contracting anxiety about the disease, which is currently move out of my way, lady, I saw that Purell first, per everyone doomsday prepping this past weekend.

If a person with the actual coronavirus can potentially infect people as far as 6 feet away, a person who’s anxious about coronavirus can infect an entire Costco’s worth of shoppers with second-hand hysteria.

But who can blame us? We’re being told to remain calm, but the Federal Reserve is cutting its benchmark interest rate in an emergency move, Governor Charlie Baker is urging Massachusetts schools to cancel international trips, and the MBTA is going to begin disinfecting stations every four hours. But all the guidance feels so vague. It’s like we’re being told to prepare for a major storm, except we don’t know when it’s coming, how big it will be, or what it will knock out. School? Work? Day drinking at brunch in the Seaport?

Some things around here have not changed — new Orange Line trains were once again taken out of service — but the threat is moving closer. Nineteen students from Newton North, back from a monthlong trip to Italy, have been ordered to stay home indefinitely. Authorities confirmed New Hampshire’s first case. A Rhode Island student who was on a school trip to Europe last month served food at a soup kitchen, and the head of the facility is worried that the coronavirus could spread to her clients.


Like any stressor, coronavirus is sparking family disputes. Between the daughter who wants to go on a long-planned international spring break trip with college pals (”people my age aren’t dying”) and the parents who worry she’ll be caught in a quarantine. Between the adventurous spouse who wants to take advantage of low prices in Europe and the cautious one who doesn’t.


Parents are afraid of the virus, but also of their own children. “There aren’t enough sticker books in the world for a two-week pandemic,” a mom with a preschooler said. “I’m less worried about corona than spending two weeks with them,” a mom of teenagers whispered into the phone.

We’re stress buying — water, batteries, food that can be eaten without cooking. But what are we expecting? That the electricity will go out? We’re doing so much hand washing that our skin is cracking.

We’re calling to ask for insurance overrides so we can get a three-month supply of Lipitor in fear that the supply chain from China will be disrupted, or that we won’t be able to leave our homes for CVS. “Why do you need extra?” a pharmacy worker in Brookline asked the nervous mom of a child with a chronic illness. Had the worker not heard?

With daily pictures of health workers in hazmat suits and reports of deaths, people are on edge. A business woman having breakfast in Kendall Square confesses that she’s going to pop Advil before flying domestically so she has no chance of getting a fever, even though she’s not sick and no one here is taking flyers’ temperatures’ anyway. A couple passing a surgical-masked Uber driver taking a break on the sidewalk outside his car near Coolidge Corner hold their breath as they pass him.


How much will things change here? Will it get so bad that even yogis are affected? In a recent e-mail, the chief executive of YogaWorks sought to reassure his people. “We have … increased our in-house cleaning by current staff to clean and sanitize frequently touched surfaces,” he wrote. “Namaste.”

Even as we brace for doom, life goes on. “A $4 million Marblehead home has a cherry bar and skyline views,” a real estate headline reads. “Marie Osmond reveals she won’t leave her fortune to her children,” CNN.com reports. In Time magazine, “Judge Judy TV Show Ending.”

At Sunday afternoon’s Bobby McFerrin concert, the Symphony Hall crowd hushed as he took the stage, and one woman whispered to her friend, “Well, at least this should be uplifting.”

And she was right — it was, even though McFerrin didn’t sing the one song we all need right now, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.”

Beth Teitell can be reached at beth.teitell@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @bethteitell.